No votes will be cast in the 2020 presidential race for more than eight months. But the nearly two dozen announced Democratic candidates have already been campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond for months now.
And CNN, like other major TV networks, has embedded reporters covering the candidates wherever they go. It’s a crazy life – lots of planes, lugging equipment and eating while driving.
Two of the CNNers who have been on the trail the longest are Daniella Diaz and DJ Judd. Over the past week, I’ve picked their brains about what their lives are like, what their impressions of the candidates are and how much attention voters are actually paying right now.
That conversation – conducted via email and lightly edited for flow – is below.
Cillizza: Hello, Daniella and DJ!
You’ve been at this embed thing for, roughly, how long now? Two years? Give me a typical day in the life of a campaign embed…
Diaz: Hey Chris!
DJ and I, along with our fellow embed Jasmine Wright, were hired in August last year so it’s been several months now that we’ve been doing this. We started doing it full-time in January of this year because so many people started jumping into the presidential race…
I can’t speak for DJ, but my days are always different depending on what state I’m in or who I’m following that day. I usually wake up early (6 a.m. if I can fit in a workout) and the first thing I do is check my two phones – sad! – for emails I missed overnight and any last-minute details on assignments I’m doing that day. I also scroll through Twitter and Instagram and then get ready for an event I’m covering, whether it’s a town hall with Sen. Elizabeth Warren in rural New Hampshire or a walking tour with Sen. Cory Booker in Iowa. My new standard campaign uniform has become jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt.
I send emails, I text campaign staff, I do the whole thing to be ready for the day – and that’s if I have everything under control. There are some days where something springs up at 7 a.m. and my whole plan for the day will change in a second. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few months, it’s how to roll with the punches and keep moving. There’s no time to pause or to dwell on stuff.
Campaign events are all spread out, so I’ll drive usually an hour to an event (whether it’s Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina) and set up my camera right away. I check in with campaign staff, cover the event, log everything the candidate said, flag the news to our colleagues at CNN, and then pack all my gear up and rush to the next event.
Sometimes we’re doing four to five events with a candidate a day. It’s crazy. You have to figure out when you’ll eat or IF you’ll eat. You have to figure out when to get gasoline, when to stop for coffee, when to stop for snacks, when to call your loved ones. Sometimes it’s even a gamble if you’ll have time to pee.
At the end of the night I figure out where I’m sleeping (sometimes we don’t book our hotels for the night until we’re done for the day and know where we’re going the next day) and then recharge all my batteries, clear out all my SD cards – all to get ready to do it again the next day.
People say this is the best job you only want to do once, and I can see why. It really is the best job. What I’ve learned in the last almost six months doing this full time is unreal. I’ve learned so much about campaigns, politics, candidates, different states around the country, voters … it’s unreal. I love it. I’m so lucky.
Judd: We started in September, when CNN deployed us into the field as part of their midterm coverage, so by my count we’re at about nine months, though it feels like a lot longer, given the size of the field today.
On a typical day I’ll wake up for my flight, arrive at the airport early so I’ve got time to check baggage (your typical campaign embed carries a lot of gear, including camera, tripod, satellite LiveU transmitter, assorted wires, computer, and of course, clothes for a variety of climates). A lot of the places we’re going don’t have direct routes, which means if I’m heading to South Bend, Indiana, from any given place in the country, I’ll have to connect somewhere like Detroit.
When we get where we’re going, we pick up our car at the rental agency, head to the event we’re covering, and set up our camera and LiveU so CNN can see (and sometimes air) it live. While we’re waiting for the candidate, I like to talk to voters to see what brought them out today – in a lot of early primary states, where they get a chance to see all of the candidates over the course of one month or so, curiosity brings a lot of them to a town hall or rally. Others may be die-hard supporters, and sometimes you even get protesters or skeptics there, ready to challenge the candidate.
Once the candidate starts speaking, we’re responsible for watching and flagging any newsworthy soundbites for the network and our digital platforms. After covering a candidate for a while, you grow accustomed to their stump speeches, but sometimes they’ll add something related to the news of day. If that happens, we’ll flag it to our managers so the shows back at CNN are aware and can react in real time. After an event, the candidate may gaggle with reporters (or not) – we’re responsible for shooting that and sending news from that back to our managers as well. Once we’ve done all that, sometimes we’ll file a digital report for CNN.com – then it’s either on to the next campaign stop for a repeat of the whole thing. At the end of the day, we return to our hotels to recharge our batteries, both figurative and literal. Then, on to the next city!
Cillizza: As a middle-aged dude who is a germophobe about planes, this sounds like the absolute worst. But great for you guys! I guess!
So, let’s talk about what you’ve seen so far. There are 23 candidates in the race at the moment. Have you seen half in person? More? Less? Who surprised you the most – in a good (or a bad) way?
Judd: The fear of germs is real! I always pack hand sanitizer and wet wipes, and I always wipe down surfaces. A bad cold can knock you off the trail for two to three days, and nobody wants that.
I had to check, and I’ve covered 15 of the 23 candidates in some capacity. The candidate who surprised me the most so far is probably the one I’m assigned to most often, Pete Buttigieg. I covered him at the Progress Iowa Holiday dinner, where he had very low name recognition but definitely won the room over (one Iowa voter even called him “gay and going places,” our buddy Dan Merica reported.) Still, when I covered him in February, low name recognition, small crowds.
Then our CNN town hall happened, and it was like lightning struck. By the time I covered him again two weeks later in Columbia, South Carolina, he had filled the sizable venue he’d booked, with people crowding the balcony to watch. People were crying in the audience. It was pretty surprising to see a candidate who had to spell his name phonetically so his intro speaker could pronounce it back in December surge like that in just three months.
Diaz: I’ve covered 15 candidates, too. Wow, I hadn’t realized until I counted them one by one.
I’d rather talk about being surprised by the voters than the candidates.
Voters want to see their lives improve with immigration, health care, education – the issues they vote on. And you meet voters who don’t like Donald Trump, but they would like to see more money in their paycheck or not have to work two jobs or have better health care or better help for family members with opioid addictions or even just clean drinking water. When you’re out on the trail in rural Iowa, rural New Hampshire, or even big cities in the Midwest, the West, I can go on … people vote because they want to see their lives improve. They share their problems with these presidential candidates who they hope can help them. Voters will share their hearts with us and with candidates at town halls. They all have stories to tell. I expected to see some of that in this job, but you really see it all the time when you’re on the road covering these candidates.
Cillizza: Let’s talk about voters. I am interested in how people are reacting to the candidates. Is there cheering, clapping, people being won over at each event? Or are most people sort of in wait-and-see mode? Like, happy to be there, interested in what a candidate is saying but still in the really early days of their decision-making process?
Diaz: Sorry – delayed in responding because traveling to San Francisco for a busy weekend with the candidates.
In the early primary states, I’ve met so many voters who have a list of candidates they like and are waiting until closer to next year to decide. Last week, I met two voters in Iowa who had their “rankings,” and they went to an Elizabeth Warren event and told me they liked her so she went up their ranks.
The joke in Iowa and New Hampshire is you have to have a selfie with a candidate before you commit to caucusing/voting for them. Having grown up in South Texas, I never had hometown visits from presidential candidates, so I am so curious about how Iowa/New Hampshire voters plan their lives around the primaries.
Sometimes I see the same voters at four events with four candidates in a weekend, because they’re all checking out the same candidates I’m covering.
I also do want to add I’ve met so many people living in Des Moines or Manchester, and other places of course, who want nothing to do with politics. I met a woman who didn’t know half the people who were running for the Democratic nomination at a nail salon. So those people do exist in the early states too! The political junkies are the ones who go to the rallies.
Judd: I’ll say, most of the voters I’ve spoken to show up to these events expecting something from these candidates. Like Daniella said, they want answers to their concerns on health care, immigration, prescription drug costs – concrete solutions to the problems they face on a daily basis due to policy failures out of Washington.
And more importantly, they’re informed on what the candidate has done before – I’ve seen voters challenge Joe Biden on the 1994 crime bill, or Beto O’Rourke on how much money he’s received from the fossil fuel industry. On more than one occasion, a voter has asked Kirsten Gillibrand to explain her position on guns while in the House. These are voters who aren’t afraid to take candidates to task for what they perceive as shortcomings, and they expect answers before they even think about supporting them.
That said, at least in the early states, most voters are still way too far from caucusing or voting to commit or be won over completely. In their eyes, there’s a lot of campaign trail left to tread. I’ve heard the selfie line that Daniella’s heard too, as well as something along the lines of “I won’t commit to caucus until I’ve had them in my living room.”
Before this experience, I never really considered the participatory nature of our democracy. But when you see people who’ve driven in blizzards or waited in sweltering heat for the opportunity to ask a candidate what they’ll do for the country, it’s a reminder that the responsibility we hold, as campaign reporters, is a serious one. We owe voters the courtesy of doing a good job.
Cillizza: Last thing! Finish this sentence: “The least understood part of being a campaign embed is _________.” Now explain!
Diaz: “How much you really learn how Democracy works in this country.”
“How much you get to see the country.”
“How much you live your entire life on your phone.”
“How amazing and lucky I feel to be in this job.”
I can go on …
Judd: “How seriously we take the opportunity afforded us to report on our electoral system.”
“How fun it can be – talking to voters, sharing their stories, and holding candidates accountable.”
“How difficult it can be to get from El Paso, Texas to Keokuk, Iowa for a 5 a.m. press call during a wind advisory.”
“How satisfying it is to fit an oversized bag into an overhead bin.”
“How lucky we are to have colleagues, family, and friends to support us while we’re on the trail full-time.”
Thanks Chris! This was fun. Made me take stock of things a bit.